Thursday, March 26, 2015

Hausfrau: Why I Quit Reading It

by Jill Alexander Essbaum
Random House     2015
336 pages     Fiction
The Shortlist

The buzz about Hausfrau began pouring in, and I suddenly remembered that I had a copy in my stack of advanced reader copies. Eager to see what the buzz was all about, I began reading. I became more and more distraught. What is this about? Why is it suddenly so popular? Who could possibly like this woman? So I stopped reading it. Now for me, that is a major change. I tend to plow through books, and try to understand the book from the author's perspective. What is the author trying to tell us? In this case, I just quit. And as you can tell from this posting, I am feeling a lot of guilt over quitting the book.

In the midst of this decision, I got into a discussion with a friend about what makes a good protagonist? Especially a woman protagonist? Do you have to like a protagonist? Certainly I hadn't liked Rachel from The Girl on the Train. I hadn't liked Hazel in Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League. I hadn't liked Amy Dunne in Gone Girl or Annie in A Small Indiscretion--all books I had completed in the last few months. 

I read the review in Shelf Awareness. The reviewer says: "In Anna Benz, Essbaum has created a genuine, complex woman whose journey--no matter how dark it may be--reveals truths as only great literature can. She may have her roots in Tolstoy's Anna Karenina or Flaubert's Emma Bovary or Ibsen's Hedda Gabler, but she is a thoroughly modern and distinct character." OK, I thought, what truths is Anna revealing that I am not understanding. So, I picked the book up again.

But then I turned to the review in The New York Times. That reviewer felt that the author was intending to show the "loathsomeness that we hide behind the bland and drab."  I get that. But the New York Times reviewer also helped me to decide to quit when she said, "A few notes to book clubs: If you really must put yourselves through this thing, good luck finding the hot parts. . . .And if you turn out to have a member who feels everything that Anna says and does is marvelous, do feel justified in getting a replacement member." Ah! Finally someone feels like I do about this book. Our book club tried to read Madame Bovary, and not one of the ten members finished the book. 

Where I think the problem for me lies in the fact that I had recently read too many books with too many self-indulgent women as protagonists. "Anna was a good wife, mostly." Hazel felt so sorry for herself and her life situation that she drank to excess and drove recklessly with her children in the car. Annie felt that she had to explain her life's mistakes to her son, and Rachel couldn't live her own life so she inserted herself into the lives of others. Amy, the queen of self-indulgence, was so self absorbed that she created a whole other persona that set out to destroy her husband. 

I am watching a young friend pull herself together after a series of bad life decisions. She is beginning to see herself as a whole person for the first time. I hear her saying to herself, "I am better than this." Does she descend to self-indulgence on occasion. Of course she does. Do I eat ice cream sometimes—last night as a matter of fact. I think that the difference is in intent. Anna in Hausfrau has no intent of abandoning her self-indulgence. She wallows in it. 

So, dear readers, it is OK to quit reading Hausfrau. Read Life from Scratch where a beautiful young housewife finds a cure for a bad life circumstance in cooking or Kristin in Station Eleven, who resiliently tramps on through a dystopian landscape. Read about empowered women not self-indulgent women.

The Review in Shelf Awareness.
The review in The New York Times.

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